On the 5% Rule, and Other Errors of Thinking

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Joanna Russ, whose detailed analysis of critical strategies that thwart female artists I have had reason to cite before, makes an observation about the constitution of anthologies and curricula in the study of English literature. Quite reliably, about 5% of the writers represented will be female. It won’t always be the same women listed, as different editors bring different interests to the task, or focus on different nationalities or time-periods, but the proportion is remarkably stable.

You can check this if you like. After all, Russ was writing back in 1983, surely things have got better now? I did with The Oxford Book of English Verse, published in 1999, and it is up to about 6%, so that gives you a measure of historical progress. Ahem.

Anyway, I have been aware of this form of tokenism for some years, but have only recently started getting an insight into how it works, thanks to the work of people like Daniel Kahneman and Rolf Dobelli, who have done such sterling work in diagnosing habitual errors of thinking.

This one came into focus for me recently when an online conversation that started off as a perfectly innocuous request for suggestions of music by women or people of colour from someone wanting to programme a concert got completely derailed by a lengthy harangue about how unfair it was to exclude white males. I pointed the objector over to my post on The Patriarchy-Compensated Slope to help him see why such programming is in fact useful and indeed necessary.

He conceded that the article ‘made some good points’ (well, yes, it does), but argued that his experience in the last month of not being able to submit for two potential commissions because he was a white male showed that the balance had tipped entirely the other way. My response was that I was more inclined to take the study of the gender and race balance in the profession cited in the post as a more complete and accurate picture than his anecdote.

But, oh, it got me thinking about how bad we are at intuitive statistics. Part of his argument was to list various high-profile female composers as evidence that the profession is now totally equal. This suggested what the dynamic behind the 5% rule might be: once you can think of a few examples, you stop thinking of women as under-represented. You notice their existence much more readily than you notice their minority status.

This felt like a classic Kahneman System 1 thinking error, and it sent me back into Dobelli’s list to try and identify exactly which. The best fit is I think the feature-positive effect. That is, we notice the presence of something much more readily than the absence of something. You don’t notice your nose when it isn’t running; it is more worthy of remark when there is a music by a woman or POC in a concert than when there isn’t.

Indeed, in contexts where there is a clear cultural as well as statistical norm, instances of the aberrant category carry much more emotional and attentional weight for the very fact of their unusualness - what Dobelli calls the salience effect. So, the less often our programming includes music by women and POC, the more weight we are likely to give it when it does.

Additionally, as I leafed through Dobelli’s Art of Thinking Clearly, I spotted several other thinking errors that showed up in that conversation:

  • The recency effect. We always over-weight attention on things in the immediate past, so having just come across two opportunities from which he was excluded led my interlocutor to feel they were happening all the time.
  • The self-selection bias. Or, ‘why does this always happen to me?’ Answer: it doesn’t, but you only notice it when it happens to you. All the times when you benefit from patterns of exclusion that apply to others, you don’t have any reason to notice.
  • Availability bias/priming. This is also classic Kahneman System 1 stuff: as soon as you start noticing something, you see more and more of it about as it becomes increasingly to hand in your mental picture of the world. If our outraged male composer hadn’t already seen female-only opportunities in the recent past, he may not even have clocked the question as anything remarkable.
  • Loss aversion and/or scarcity error. We regret the loss of something more than we value the prospect of that same thing in advance; likewise we value things more highly the less chance there is to have it. Opportunities from which your demographic is excluded will immediately thereby feel like a greater loss to you than all those that come and go in the normal run of things

We should note that all these thinking errors are very normal. We all fall prey to them, otherwise they could not have been so precisely documented. So I’m not saying that a white male who thinks that women and people of colour are being disproportionately advantaged in classical music is stupid because he makes these errors. I am interested in analysing how these errors add up to a world view in which a clearly intelligent person could draw this misguided conclusion.

Of course, both he and I are both subject to confirmation bias, in which we pay undue attention to evidence that confirms our current positions, and under-value information that contradicts it. So, he is primed to rant at the ‘palpable nonsense’ of these perceived injustices, and I am primed to see this as the overweening arrogance of white male privilege.

I have more to say on this matter, most of which can wait for another day. But let’s remember for now that anyone claiming that there are no obstacles ‘in this day and age’ is either labouring naively under the myth of historical progress, or acting more directly in bad faith to use this argument as a means to cling to their own unearned cultural capital.


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